A sense of deja vu all over again

Monday Book Review

November 07, 1994|By Dave Edelman

HALF ASLEEP IN FROG PAJAMAS. By Tom Robbins. Bantam. 388 pages. $23.95.

ALTHOUGH TOM Robbins has a reputation for writing humorous novels that are not easily summarized, his technique is starting to become disappointingly clear.

The inside sleeve of "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas," Mr. Robbins' new novel, promises all manner of goofiness by describing a plot that involves the collapse of Wall Street, a 300-pound psychic, a born-again monkey, and Sirius the Dog Star. Once you've made it halfway through the book, however, you realize that this is really the same thing Mr. Robbins has been writing for years, to wit:

Take a confused and slightly squarish female protagonist. Throw her together with a hip middle-aged guy who a) regularly insults Western Judeo-Christian culture, b) is on some sort of urgent quest to put a whoopee cushion on respectability's chair, and c) turns her on to kinky sex. Add in an exotic leitmotif -- including such things as frogs, beets or explosives -- stitch all the meandering subplots together. End with a prolonged sermon about flying saucers, the hypocrisy of conventional religion, Atlantis and the virtues of recreational drug use.

Seattle resident Tom Robbins has managed to knock off six fairly entertaining books with this formula, among them the '70s cult classic (and recent feature film flop) "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and 1990's best seller "Skinny Legs and All." But considering how long it takes for the author to churn these books out -- about half a decade per book -- "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas" could just as easily describe Mr. Robbins' modus operandi as his subject matter.

The book opens with our hero, an uptight Filipino broker named Gwendolyn Mati, bemoaning a ruinous crash of the stock market on Easter weekend. Her friends offer her little consolation: one of them, 300-pound medium and tarot card enthusiast, Q-Jo Huffington, has suddenly vanished; the other, Gwen's lover and devout Lutheran, Belford Dunn, is preoccupied with searching for his lost pet monkey Andre.

Scrambling for some way to recoup the weekend's loss, Gwen meets up with erstwhile financial hotshot Larry Diamond. But Mr. Diamond has little concern for the brokering business these days; instead, he's out to convince Gwen that it's high time to ditch her materialistic career and join him in his mind-expanding crusade for the answers to the burning questions facing humanity. Such questions as why the world's frog population is mysteriously disappearing, why an African tribe named the Bozo detected a neighboring star to Sirius thousands of years before Western scientists, and whether or not a celebrated Eastern mystic can really cure cancer with enemas.

The reader is likely to be plagued with burning questions of his or her own. Such as, does Tom Robbins take any of this astral gobbledygook seriously? And why should tens of thousands of people fork over 24 bucks to read it?

Tom Robbins' equally ludicrous older novels such as "Jitterbug Perfume" (which outlined a four-step recipe for immortality) and "Still Life with Woodpecker" (which instructed the reader in the ABC's of making homemade bombs) were redeemed by their deliriously wacky prose. The author has an unparalleled mastery over the art of creative metaphor and non sequitur that propels the reader smoothly over such doubts about subject matter.

Who else but Tom Robbins could write of "beets as intense as serial killers, celery as stringy as soundtrack orchestras, sesame seeds as blank as the eyes of termite queens"? Reading Tom Robbins is like listening to Robin Williams interpret Thomas Pynchon at Woodstock.

And yet, "Pajamas" is linguistically lazier than most of Tom Robbins' previous works, and his indictments of conventional society only half as biting.

Perhaps his biggest innovation is to write the whole work in second person, a technique more irritating than effective.

As for philosophical innovations, "Pajamas" adds to Tom Robbins' ideological canon a few ideas with more than a whiff of downright fascism -- a disdain for the homeless ("Everybody has a hard-luck story," claims Mr. Diamond.), a disregard for politics of any shape or form and a dislike of any ideology (especially Christianity) that champions the meek.

Probably the most important contribution "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas" has to make to American culture is a new word to describe the sound a slide projector makes when it rotates: "snickersnee." Like the book itself, it's an interesting piece of linguistic legerdemain, but nothing to croak over.

Dave Edelman writes from Gaithersburg.

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